There are a lot of things we think we know about Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani. Some are true.
We know Ohtani is a right-handed pitcher and left-handed swinger, adept enough at both to garner recognition as Japan’s best pitcher and designated hitter after the 2016 season.
We know Ohtani does indeed throw upwards of 100 miles per hour, and mixes in a swing-and-miss splitter that scouts around the game have graded as high as 70 on the 20-80 scale.
On the offensive side of things, we know he swung his way to a .332/.403./.540 triple-slash line in 2017 and has been clocked running to first base in as fast as 3.8 seconds — Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon territory.
We also know that he is available, entering the international amateur free agent market after being posted by his Japanese team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, on December 1st, and that MLB teams have 21 days to reach an agreement with him.
At just 23 years old, and given his tremendous physical talent and relatively cheap price given the international spending limits regulating his signing, Ohtani has become arguably the most intriguing free agent in recent memory. His recent posting has kicked off a flurry of rumors and “likely suitors” lists, and started a league-wide recruiting campaign rarely seen outside of the elite tiers of college athletics.
A lot of things, however, have been proven false.
The assumption that the teams with the largest available international bonus pools would be most competitive (this, mind you, from a player who already decided to bypass hundreds of millions in earning power by coming to America now instead of in two years) quickly fell to the wayside. Two of the first teams Ohtani turned down were the New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins, both of which held available bonus pools among the largest in the sport.
Furthermore, the assumption that Ohtani, having expressed a desire to both pitch and hit in the major leagues, would prefer American league teams that would allow him to DH on days he didn’t pitch seems more likely to be a guess than a logical rationalization. On Sunday, Ohtani’s narrowed list of seven suitors included four teams from the Senior Circuit, a split of more than half.
That narrowing, however, did provide a handful of further potential clues into the mind of the winter’s most coveted free agent. As it currently stands, the Giants, Rangers, Mariners, Angels, Dodgers, Cubs, and Padres all remain in contention for his services.
With individual meetings between the right-hander and his remaining suitors being scheduled over the first half of this week, and a decision suspected by some to come before next week’s Winter Meetings, let’s reevaluate the Shohei Ohtani SweepstakesTM and see if we can glean anything else we think we know from what remains a developing situation.
Ohtani prefers a smaller market
This is perhaps the factor we know most definitively. In confirming that New York had in fact been eliminated from contention for Ohtani, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman mentioned that Ohtani seemed to be targeting smaller-market teams among his potential suitors. This confirmed a report from Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports from Sunday saying the same.
haven't heard yanks are officially out, but ohtani is telling teams he prefers a smaller market. which could bode well for twins, mariners, padres, pirates, etc. https://t.co/eXM88aPVPb
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) December 3, 2017
It also goes along with Ohtani’s prior decisions surrounding baseball — when selecting a high school to attend in Japan, Ohtani reportedly chose to play for a lower-profile school rather than weigh offers from more prominent programs.
Ohtani prefers to help a team build toward the playoffs
Ohtani’s list of seven remaining suitors includes five teams who finished the 2017 season with a winning percentage under .500. Given the lack of precedence supporting Ohtani’s two-way aspirations, playing for a team not currently in win-now mode would allow the team that signs him every opportunity to experiment with Ohtani’s playing schedule and line-up fit. Furthermore, it would allow Ohtani to serve as a cornerstone of a franchise’s title construction and avoid a possible relegation by early struggles to a more defined and traditional role.
Ohtani prefers teams on the West Coast
Of the seven teams that advanced to the second round of the Shohei Ohtani courtship, five play their home games on the West Coast, and another frequently makes trips to the region as a member of the American League West. This makes sense as well: not only has Ohtani shown a general disinterest in the megawatt spotlight he often commands, but he has also shown a desire to maximize the comfort of his new residence in America. Staying on the West Coast results in larger populations of Asian-Americans as well as a closer geographic proximity to Ohtani’s home in Japan.
Ohtani prefers the Padres (maybe)
Baseball writers have flooded the Internet in recent days with realizations regarding the bread crumbs (coincidental or intentional) laid by the Padres to lead Ohtani to America’s Finest City. Based off a report from Ken Rosenthal tonight, the hometown Friars will also be the final team to sit down with Ohtani during this round of courting.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 6, 2017
Theoretically, that could mean that Ohtani will be comparing the Padres’ pitch to what he deems the best offer he’s received before meeting with them, placing San Diego in the final two among suitors. We’ve all heard the old adage, “Save the best for last.” Could Ohtani be taking that approach to this week’s meetings?
All of this speculation should of course come with a caps-lock DISCLAIMER: we still don’t really know what Ohtani is going to do. This is true no matter how much we want to get inside the mind of the mysterious phenom who continues to defy free agent norms. Yes, the Padres have made the cut so far. However, so have the Cubs, who as a World Series favorite east of the Mississippi River and in one of the country’s largest cities and media hubs, are essentially the ultimate antithesis of Ohtani’s supposed preferences.
When all is said and done and Ohtani has donned the uniform of his new team in front of a packed press conference, signs will surely emerge that might have signaled Ohtani’s final decision. Hindsight is 20/20, after all. For now, though, all we have is hypotheses and assumptions and handfuls of things we think we know.
One thing remains absolutely certain: the league’s pursuit of Ohtani is must-watch TV, and all of its twists and turns will reach their conclusion by Christmas time.
Until then, back to the rumor mill we go.